Saturday, September 13, 2008

Perfect For The Moment--Pioneertown

Came down to Yucca Valley, right outside of Joshua Tree for the 4th Annual Cracker/Camper campout. For 4 years running, the Camper Van Beethoven posse has thrown a mini-fest out in the desert in a little spot called Pioneertown. All configurations of Camper/Cracker and their solo projects play as well as a tasteful smattering of other indie bands. This year’s bill includes Built To Spill, Quasi, Citay and my wife’s new band McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a duo with Camper’s very own Anderson Cooper-esque, Victor Krummenacher.

I must admit to not getting the appeal of the new destination festival mania that’s sweeping the rock ‘n’ roll touring landscape these days. It seems conceptually awful to me. Thousands of people roasting in the sun, seeing bands that, for the most part, I don’t want to see or have already seen in a venue 1/100th the size of the sprawling outdoor festival, temporary cityscape. This campout is nothing like that. It’s an altogether different and quite pleasant beast. It’s mellow and very cool. 300-400 people, maybe less (I’m bad with numbers), at a dusty bar, sand coating the floors, Joe Walsh on the jukebox, drinks in pickle jars, pulled pork sandwiches on the bbq. Good sound, small stage and if you want to get up to the front, no problem. Lots of elbow room. People are just having a good time.

Yesterday’s highlight was Built To Spill performing their brilliant 1997 record Perfect From Now On. Funny thing about BTS was that I loved this band like no other in 1997. They were my soundtrack for 3 consecutive summers. I loved the gentle, pop twee of There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, a record that was a pleasant change in the landscape when it was released at the height of grunge mania. And then came Pefect From Now On. A sprawling opus. Kinda psychedelic, kinda Crazy Horse, fully epic. Monstrous and beautiful in so many ways. At the apex of this band’s powers I saw them live twice. After the second time I made my wife promise me to make sure I never paid to see this band again. They sucked live. They always sounded great, but somehow managed to bore the crap out of me. Maybe it was the dispassion on stage. Maybe it was the insistence on playing almost all new material. While I respect a band’s decisions to play lots of new material live, I don’t necessarily love it. When Perfect From Now On came out I owned every song this band had released, yet I knew practically not one song they played. Add in the dispassion and the wanky guitar solos and forget about it. Snooze city.

I should say that I’m not that into the reunion show scene (though I’ll be seeing My Bloody Valentine in a couple of weeks) and I’m not that into the playing an old album in it’s entirety scene (though I did see Sonic Youth do Daydream Nation a couple of years back). I don’t know, I guess I like to move forward. Playing the old stuff seems defeatist in a way or maybe it’s more like realism--recognizing that most people aren’t interested in your new stuff. Isn’t this an oldie circuit that our twentysomething personalities would decry.

No matter how you look at it, I was gonna be in Pioneertown anyway and so was Built To Spill, so in a way I was psyched they were gonna be playing Perfect From Now On. They were gonna be playing the set that I was dying to see 11 years ago. And they delivered. The band is still somewhat dispassionate on stage, but they sounded amazing. Close your eyes, let the desert wind sweep over you and listen to the soaring guitar parts and twist with the songs’ changes. It was a nice reminder why I loved this band in the first place. And sometimes it’s kinda nice to channel your inner 30 year old.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Hamlet 2 vs. The House Bunny

Went for the comedy double bill with the wife last weekend. First up was the highly anticipated Hamlet 2, followed by whatever movie we could then sneak into in a timely fashion…which turned out to be The House Bunny. Now let me say this. You will not find bigger Steve Coogan fans than my wife and I. We gloriously squirmed to the disturbing charms of all three seasons of Alan Partridge, many viewed on poorly dubbed vhs bootlegs prior to the show being released on dvd in America. I’ll even go so far as to say that Coogan is damn hysterical in Night at the Museum playing the miniature Roman soldier Octavius.

Hamlet 2 is clearly his attempt to make it in America. His big crossover film. And I must say, it disappoints. The premise seems to be full proof. Failed thespian tries to revitalize a high school’s fledgling drama program by writing a debauched sequel to Hamlet that involves time travel and show tunes. But somewhere along the way, the film flatlines. To be fair, there are great, laugh out loud moments and the production of the play is brilliant, but the film is ultimately inconsistent and underdone at times. At first I thought it was the writing, but Catherine Keener, Amy Poehler and Elisabeth Shue light up the screen and deliver first-rate laughs whenever they’re on screen. They’re fully committed to their characters in a way that Coogan is not. I kind of think that Coogan’s decision to play the film as an American is his undoing. He never truly seems to find his character and maybe that’s because he never truly finds his accent. Who knows. The film is all right but I expect a lot more from Coogan.

Thirsting for a little more comedy, but expecting a lot less, we snuck into the House Bunny. I must admit to having a soft spot for teen girl movies and I was kind of glad this was our option. And maybe it had to do with decreased expectations, but we were laughing a hell of a lot more than during Hamlet 2. Anna Farris plays up the Legally Blonde-style ditz factor as an out-of-work Playboy bunny trying to sexy up a homely girls’ sorority. I’m not gonna spend to much time analyzing this thing other than to say it was funny. Farris pulls it off and outshines Coogan. Ouch man. Didn’t see that one coming.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


Given that I have a 7 year old, my intake of kid movies has spiked in the last ½ dozen years. And while there are certainly some good family films coming out (I really liked Madagascar and Over the Hedge), I approach each new release with a certain amount of dread. There’s just a numbing sameness to them all. I had heard the hype on Wall-E, and though skeptical going in, I must say that for once the hype was well deserved. Wall-E was really awesome and what makes Wall-E stand out is, dare I say, the language of cinema. There is a sophistication at play not normally found in kid movies of the day. The first half of the film conjures up the ghost of great silent cinema and the slapstick of Keaton, Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy and the like. The first 20 minutes of the film take place on a post-apocalyptic earth and consists only of Wall-E and a cockroach. In other words, no dialogue. That alone is unbelievable for a kid’s film in this day and age. And Wall-E doesn’t fill this silence with contemporary pop schlock. The story is allowed to unfold through character observation, non-verbal communication, facial gestures, body language and the like. Nobody is burping the ABCs to get a laugh. This sort of quietude is rarely seen in kid’s films and is a welcome relief to a landscape that is normally cluttered with fast-talking, wisecracking animal buddies. The fact that the story works based on physical comedy and interaction between the characters is a true testament to how far animation has come in recent years.

Weeks before seeing Wall-E, I had the pleasure of seeing Jacques Tati’s masterpiece Playtime on the big screen. I walked out of that screening thinking that Playtime was the greatest slapstick, silent movie ever made, which is a funny thought given that it’s not particularly slapstick, no is it silent. In fact, sound plays a crucial role in Playtime, but not in a conventional dialogue-driven way. The sound design of Playtime is an elaborate multi-language choreography, though for the most part, the content of the dialogue is superfluous. It’s enough to know that the characters are communicating, but it’s their gestures, actions, and the scenarios themselves, rather than the dialogue that drives the plot. The first half of Wall-E functions in the same way. When Wall-E and the space probe Eve first meet, they try to find a common language. They speak in tongues and can’t communicate, but the audience fully buys into the drama and comedy that result. No dialogue needed.

Though there are direct references to 2001 and Brazil, Playtime is perhaps a greater touchstone for Wall-E. And, given Playtime’s consumerist critique it’s not a far stretch to think of these films in a similar light given that Wall-E has a similar social conscience.

What’s most encouraging is that kids and adults both seemed to love this movie. Kids had no trouble following this more subtle type of film language. I’m not surprised because my kid has been watching silent films for years and Buster Keaton is his favorite film star. But it’s nice to see Pixar taking a chance on this kind of language and getting the critical and box office response that it did.

Like I say, there are a lot of good kid’s films out there, but I’m hoping that Wall-E shows you can break from the formula and still put the little butts in the seats.

Another Post About Hair Metal or Fargo Rock City

A couple years back I read Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs & Cocoa Puffs. While I liked it, I didn’t love it. It was well written, clever and filled with lots of essays and cultural critiques. It should have been right up my alley, but like I say, I didn’t love it. Having just read Klosterman’s ode to his metallic youth, Fargo Rock City, I think I now know why I was lukewarm on Sex, Drugs. Klosterman’s formative cultural moment was hearing the first Motley Crue record. 80s Glam Metal was his first love. This is a guy who loves being one of the guys. This is a slightly different vantage than someone whose formative moments might be considered “out of step with the world”. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s a different compass setting for looking at the world of pop culture. I somehow think that when reading pop culture ruminations, there’s an inherent advantage in knowing where your author is coming from. When reading Sex, Drugs, I just didn’t know my author.

At a friend’s urging I picked up Fargo Rock City and I can’t begin to tell you how awesome I think this book is. In short, Fargo Rock City ROCKS. It’s the product of a balls-to-the-walls, glam metal super fan. It brims with passion and champions metal of the glam, pop and hair variety. In other words, it champions music that people who take music seriously loathe, lampoon and scoff at. Klosterman knows this and gladly puts his street cred on the line, defending the music he loves. He unapologetically loves The Crue and is willing to discuss it with the seriousness others have discussed more high-falutin musicians like Robert Johnson, Patti Smith and the Minutemen. The book is an unapologetic, exhaustive examination of metal and gives serious thought to the likes of LA Guns, Skid Row, Whitesnake, Ratt, Faster Pussycat, Warrant and on and on. What do they mean to Chuck? How do they fit into the broader popular culture? All this and more will be answered in this metallic tome.

Like any excellent book on pop culture you don’t need to be a fan of these bands to like the writing. Klosterman is a grade A wit. This book is damn hysterical with a constant barrage of laugh out loud moments.

In many respects this book would make a great companion piece to Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, which documents the rise of the 80s indie rock scene. Ultimately this is this scene that kills off glam metal and in a way the two scenes become inextricably linked. Both books also capture what it’s like to be passionate about music that is disregarded by so many. Indie rock never had many fans. Glam metal had lots of fans but no critical acclaim. Different sides of the same coin perhaps.